What lies beneath these French subterranean sites

Gouffre de Padirac
The ‘pile of plates’ room at the Gouffre de Padirac cave in the Lot

Away from the prehistoric caves that lure visitors in their droves, France has plenty of lesser-known underground sites to explore. Samantha David selects some of her favourites

France has some of the most beautiful scenery in Europe, but is equally beautiful under the surface. Some underground spaces are natural, others man-made, and they are used for an unexpectedly wide variety of activities.

The largest and best known is perhaps the Lascaux caves in Dordogne, which are visited by upwards of 250,000 people per year. But the biggest and most-visited is the Grotte Chauvet (Caverne du Pont d’Arc) in the Ardèche, which gets nearly 600,000 visitors per year. The Catacombs in Paris are also popular, but there are many other underground attractions in France.

The massive ‘Gouffre de Padirac’ cave in the Dordogne Valley in the Lot, is a natural cavity 75 metres deep and 33 metres diameter. You get to it via a massive vertical hole in the ground which you can either walk down 543 steps or take the lift. The visit covers 2.2kms, but what makes it extra fun is that around 1km of that is travelled by boat. The river at the bottom of the caves flows through a series of caves, allowing up to 8,000 people per day to marvel at the rock formations.

Various activities which are periodically organised inside the caves including classical music concerts and music for the Fête de la Musique. You can also join a guided visit conducted entirely by the light of old fashioned oil lamps, just as Edouard-Alfred Martel discovered them back in 1889. He subsequently explored the caves with colleague George Beamish, whose great grand-daughter manages the caves today. The Gouffre closes on ...

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